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My Chicagoland Report

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Bruce Mar 15, 2001 03:50 PM

Ran down to Chicago, first time in almost a year. Am native to Chicago, but now live 300 miles north--so, HERE IS MY REPORT:

Inbound to city, decided to make first stop south-side Chinatown. Getting off expressway at 18th St., an ominous sign at the mouth of an alley: "NO GARBAGE PICKING." Below this, warnings about rat poison. I persisted nonetheless. Went to one of my old favorites, Moon Palace, just west of fire station on Cermak. Had my standards (yeah, I'm in a rut, but I often like to get what I know is good when on limited time): hot & sour soup; steamed dumplings; laun mein with special sauce (i.e., noodles in spicey, sticky, garlic/ginger/sesame/peanut sauce). Everything delicious, dumplings plump and redolent of ginger (although additional raw ginger is served on the side also). One shortcoming, certainly not particular to this place: no forest mushrooms in the hot & sour soup (plenty of black fungus, root vegetable (kholrabi? turnip?), and bean curd--very good, rich, flavorful broth--but, no forest mushrooms. I've noticed this at other places--are they all cheaping out?

Went later, twice, to Costa's in Oakbrook Terrace. The valets in the parking lot did NOT damage my Saturn, I'm happy to say. Had exquisitely grilled octopus appetizer (big plateful), charred and a little crunchy in spots, tender & succulent, bathed in oil & vinegar and green onion tops. Also, usual cold appetizer spreads, all very well prepared and delicious. Greek salad good, spinach/cheese pie a little different: inside, a rather thick, heavy melting cheese (kasseri?) which nicely complemented the sharpness of the feta (also evident). On another night, the roast lamb (whidh was on special) was rather bony and, in some spots, tough. Would not get this dish again, but overall very good food & rather upscale atmosphere (piano player etc.). (I should add here that I nearly went to Papagus for Greek food, and actually sought it out because of the praises of some of the threads on this board--but, upon finding it to be an unabashed and unrepentant Rich Melman place ("Lettuce Entertain You") I did a quick about face. Those of you who know what I mean by this require no explanation; those of you who patronize or even defend LEYs will never understand anyway; I won't bother.)

I went to 26th street in search of chicharrones. For those who are not familiar, chicharrones are fried pork skins which are simmered (after frying, I think) in a piquant green or red sauce ("con salsa verde o salsa roja"). They really soak up and concentrate the flavor of the sauce. I can make a passable gringo duplicate at home by ripping open a bag of Bakenets pork rinds (with my teeth) and introducing these to a bath of the aforementioned sauce. Let 'em soak it up & serve on hot flour tortillas. As Keith Floyd used to say, "YUM YUM." However, being ever in search of the better and more authentic article, I went to 26th street. I was initially blocked ingress to this area by a stalled freight train. Later, after cursing and pounding on my steering wheel, I u-turned and achieved my objective. However, I have not been to this area lately, and I was chagrinned to find absolutely no parking spaces near any likely candidate restaurants for chicharrones. (I think I last had these about 20 years ago at Nuevo Leon.)

In frustration, I opted for cheap Mexican eats (but no chicharrones) at my longstanding favorite, Mr. Taco. ("Dining Under the Viaduct.") This place is a filthy dump in Cicero at Ogden & Austin, but I appreciate their culinary acumen; generally, they sear all of their cheap steak on a dangerously hot grill & season it well. Some swear by the steak burritos, but my wife and I prefer the steak tacos--said piece of thinly sliced, well-seared & charred steak is served up on a fresh and hot double portion of tortilla, along with lettuce, tomato, crumple cheese, crema, onion, along with as many peppers/carrots, cilantro, red/green sauce as you like and can stand. What they call "quesadillas" are served with similar condiments, but there is melting & charred cheese in place of the steak. There are also rather heavy but flavorful tamales and excellent pork & bean burritos made with stewed carne adobo. I was crushed to find, upon this visit, that the fashionable unisex bathroom (adorned with gang grafitti) was sealed shut; perhaps plumbing or recycling problems? Making up for this, however, was the vista of delapidated autos & truck trailers gracing the parking lot. (Most notable: a circa 60s or 70s fire-engine red Cadillac, fins and all, and still on display since my last visit.)

I went to Pappadieux's (sp?) near Oakbrook one night, sat at the bar & scoped out the place (a favorite tactic of mine). (This is cajun food, but also a chain out of Texas, I understand.) Had assortment of various oysters at the bar, mostly good but the "Sailor Girl" variety (out of Chesapeake Bay) tasted rotten & muddy. My wife said they were strong; I said they were bad. But, I didn't get sick. Servers seemed well-intentioned, but lacking in skill. And, the area (at least around the bar) was noisy and chaotic; I left without eating anything substantial.

Went back through Chinatown (south side) on my way out of town. Went to another dump with decent food, Hong Min, on other side of Cermak from the fire station. I know, I know, I'm in a rut. Had shrimp dumplings, pork and mushroom dumplings, short pointed noodles, lotus-leaf stuffed with sticky rice. (This last item particularly flavorful--besides rice, it is stuffed with pieces of forest muchroom, chicken, chinese sausage, and the rice picks up the savory and somewhat musty odor of the lotus leaf--I highly recommend this.) Prior to finding my way out, I used the lavatory and was treated to the notice, scribbled publicly on the bathroom wall, that "Eric Wong puked here." A fine plaudit.

Off to twin cities this weekend; will post on midwest board later. Bon Appetit to all.

--Bruce

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